The image looming in a feculent pother over this blog is Goya’s ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ from his Pinturas negras, his Black Paintings, a series of fourteen murals not-untimely ripped from the Quinta del Sardo after the artist’s death and housed reverentially now in a kind of sacristy of the Prado. Would that they were hung among the dunnest smokes of Hell. They are bloody, rancid, corrupt, shockingly modern. As scatological as they are eschatological, they churn with the fleshy nausea of the Isenheim Grünewald and the raw formal weirdness of El Greco, yet are possessed also of a ghoulish intimacy, like Dutch genre-scenes from a Boschian phantasm. At the same time, their proto-expressionism is obvious: Kokoschka’s viscosity is here, curdled with the awful sensuality that informs Soutine’s slabs of meat. The pulsing messes to which Goya reduces his human groups prefigures Bacon’s biomorphs, each punctured by the haunted eyes out of a Dix or Grosz. They are paintings not to be looked at so much as tasted and smelled.
They are, in the highest Romantic sense, profoundly adolescent – awkward, raging, idiotic, intensely themselves. They gesture toward allegory while petulantly squalling away any such delicate contrivance as symbol or satire, vomiting and shitting on the viewer’s imagination. They are not even adolescent, then, but infantile, wretched incunabula of fever-script and primal ciphers. Where Fuseli depicted a nightmare, Goya expresses, or releases one; we cannot curate our reason, maintain our distance, but submit to each work as to a succubus.
Their genius is in the smeary, contradictory opacity of their transparence, what Sontag calls ‘the most liberating value in art…the luminousness of the thing in itself.’ That dark luminosity is rightfully inexplicable. As the coda to an iconic art career, the Black Paintings are vulnerable to mythologising. I prefer to think of the aged Goya, a prisoner triple-bound – by his own house, his own body and his own reputation – performing the greatest dirty protest in history all over the walls.
Note that my prominent use of the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ is not calculated to imply that:
1. I am of the Devil’s party (He wouldn’t have me)
2. I interlope in His pulpit (though my preferred congregation would be noisome and writhing);
3. I am angsty (despite the fact when I was fourteen or so I sprayed an inverted cross in deodorant on my bedroom wall and tried to set it ablaze with a Bic lighter).
I just think it’s good.